Alexander’s Path (ISBN 0879513403) has been on my bookshelves for many years now. The first time I read it was in preparation for my wonderful trip with Peter Sommer, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, the full 21 days journey (now split up into two parts). Since then, I grabbed it repeatedly when exploring Pamphylia and Lycia on my own to get those little extra details that make a journey so much more worthwhile. In a surge of melancholy and enriched by my own experiences, I decided to read it once again, cover to cover, making a most enjoyable mental travel.
What threw me off, at first, is the fact that Freya Stark goes in the opposite direction of Alexander, starting with Alexandrette (Iskenderun) and the Battle of Issus, moving through Cilicia to the great cities of Pamphylia to finally reach Lycia. She travels in the early 1950’s when the landscape is not spoiled yet by the crowds of coastal hotels and modern roads, in fact still looking very much like in Alexander’s days. Her means of transportation are random, simply adapted to the circumstances: car, jeep, horse, mule, donkey and on foot. Hotels, where she can enjoy a room of her own, are rare, and she often simply accepts Turkish hospitality in whatever form and with whatever comfort that may or may not offer.
It is not a dreary recitation of facts or references from ancient authors about Alexander’s march through these lands. On the contrary, she knows how to enhance her story with simple daily facts of life as it evolves: her observation of life in the village, the sound of goats and herders in the hills, her own thoughts as the day passes and the road unwinds. She observes the land with an analytical eye, constantly wondering how an army could cross it and what Alexander’s goal was at that moment in time.
In the end, she extensively crisscrosses the rugged lands of Lycia in search of Alexander’s path, which has not reached us from ancient literature. Even Arrian, otherwise rather detailed in his descriptions, simply mentioned that Alexander moved from Xanthos through Lycia to Phaselis. Freya Stark has spent several trips exploring every single road, pass, river and trail of Lycia looking for the most plausible route and concluded that the Macedonian King either took the coastal road (corresponding mostly to the modern motor road) or the higher ridge via Candyba and Kassaba to Myra and hence to Limyra with another possible deviation via Arykanda to Limyra, to end at Phoenice (modern Finike). Taking advantage of the old well-travelled stony paths and donkey trails, she manages to find the best-fitted passage for Alexander to take his army across the mountain backbone, passing under Rhodiapolis, through Corydalla (now Kumluca), over the Yazir Pass to descend on the eastern side to Phaselis.
It may be hard to find, but Alexander’s Path not only is a fascinating and captivating book but a true and precious travel companion.